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In the House of Commons on Thursday, New Democratic MP Jenny Kwan, seen here on May 17, 2019, asked the government to commit to flying Canadians out.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The plight of Canadians unable to leave Iran because of the coronavirus crisis is an example of why Canada needs diplomatic relations and consular staff in Tehran, the Iranian Canadian Congress says.

The vice-president of the congress, Pouyam Tabasinejad, said the organization has received more than 100 e-mails from Canadians in Iran, who have been unable to leave the country after most commercial flights were cancelled because of the outbreak – and it is now calling for Ottawa to organize an airlift.

Mr. Tabasinejad said it is the second emergency in as many months – after the downing of Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 by Iranian missiles that killed 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents. It demonstrates, he said, that Canadians are being hurt by the lack of a diplomatic mission to provide consular services.

Those stranded, including some elderly Iranian-Canadians, have no official help on the ground in Iran, he said. “They’re stuck there and we don’t have anybody there to see what can be done,” Mr. Tabasinejad said.

In the House of Commons on Thursday, New Democratic MP Jenny Kwan asked the government to commit to flying Canadians out, but Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said Canadians in Iran should take commercial flights “while they remain available,” and said they can access consular services in the Turkish capital of Ankara – 1,700 kilometres from Tehran.

The Globe and Mail reported this week that in January, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif proposed talks toward resuming diplomatic relations with Canada that have been suspended since 2012. However, Mr. Champagne put him off, insisting that relations now must focus on issues surrounding Flight 752.

Mr. Champagne has repeatedly called for Iran to bring the plane’s flight recorders to a foreign laboratory for analysis, since Iranian investigators cannot read them.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during the 2015 election campaign that he would resume diplomatic ties with Iran that were suspended in 2012, when Stephen Harper’s Conservative government closed Canada’s embassy in Tehran.

At a meeting with Mr. Champagne in Oman on Jan 17, Mr. Zarif raised the idea of opening “interests sections” – offices typically housed in the embassies of another country – rather than opening a new embassy.

But resuming diplomatic ties remains controversial and Conservative MP Peter Kent argued that it is a bad idea, not just now, but for the foreseeable future.

Mr. Kent acknowledged that the lack of consular services is a “terrible inconvenience” for many Iranian-Canadians, but said Iran’s status as a sponsor of terrorism, a destabilizer in the Middle East and its human-rights record mean Canada should not resume diplomatic relations.

He said one reason that the Canadian embassy in Tehran was shut in 2012 was concern for diplomat safety – noting that Iranian authorities did not protect the British embassy there from a 2011 attack by protesters, which the British government believed was sanctioned by the state. And, he said, the Iranian embassy in Ottawa was being used for “spying and sanctions-busting.”

“I don’t think we should have diplomats [in Iran],” Mr. Kent said. “If anything, relations are worse now than in 2012.”

Mr. Tabasinejad, however, said that while many Iranian-Canadians are critical of the government in Tehran, trying to achieve things requires communication. The Iranian-Canadian community numbers roughly 300,000, and many travel to Iran or have relatives in the country. There is a regular need for services, such as replacing passports or paperwork for a power of attorney. He said events such as the downing of Flight 752 and the outbreak of coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, are examples of why such services are important.

University of Ottawa professor Thomas Juneau said it is true that the lack of diplomatic ties makes it harder for Canada to deal with emergencies. But he added that even if Ottawa decided tomorrow to resume full ties or open interests sections, it would take months of talks.

“I think it is the right decision to say we are potentially interested, but not now,” he said.

The decision is strategically sound, Mr. Juneau said, because it will encourage Iran to listen to what Canada is asking – to send flight recorders abroad for analysis and complete an investigation into the air disaster. It is also politically sound, he argued, because moving to discuss the resumption of diplomatic ties so soon after Flight 752 was shot down would also be politically costly for Mr. Trudeau.